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Canadian Arctic Policy Speech Short on Clear Action

While the Trudeau government seeks closer relations with Russia on Arctic issues, concrete foreign policy actions in the region are found wanting, write Arctic experts Heather Exner-Pirot and Joël Plouffe.

Written by Heather Exner-Pirot and Joël Plouffe Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion has dropped hints about Canada's northern foreign policy approach, but no details yet.AFP/Florence Cassisi

When Canada’s Liberal government was elected a year ago, there were calls for a bold and constructive new Arctic policy with an international spirit – one that would depart from the previous Conservative government’s sometimes combative and isolationist tendencies. But when Stephane Dion, the new foreign affairs minister, received his mandate letter from incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau, Arctic stakeholders were surprised that it lacked any reference to the region. The Arctic was absent or carried a low profile in all the other letters.

The federal government had the potential to amend this oversight in a speech delivered September 29 at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the Arctic Council. Dion, who was en route to Shimon Peres’ funeral, had parliamentary secretary Pamela Goldsmith-Jones step in to read the speech. Those of us who still had hope were left disappointed.

The Trudeau government might be surprised to hear that some feel the Arctic region is being ignored under the Liberals. After all, it highlighted the Arctic in its first bilateral statement with its most important ally: the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy and Arctic Leadership, signed last March. In addition, indigenous and northern affairs minister Carolyn Bennett recently appointed Mary Simon – the former Inuit Circumpolar Council president, who was also Canada’s first circumpolar ambassador and senior Arctic official to the Arctic Council – as special advisor on Arctic issues.

Perhaps what Arctic stakeholders and observers have been seeking from the federal government is not attention but leadership.

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth speaks during a news conference at the inauguration of the Arctic Council in Ottawa.

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth speaks during a news conference at the inauguration of the Arctic Council in Ottawa. (AFP/Dave CHAN)

Canada famously led the establishment of the Arctic Council, on September 19, 1996, with the Ottawa Declaration. But its prominence in the forum has diminished over time. Many want to see Canada “back” in the Arctic after years of reluctant foreign policy and disinterest for bilateral and multilateral policy engagements with its neighbors. Here was an event commemorating international commitment to Arctic politics, and yet we heard little new about the ways the Trudeau government would respond innovatively to the challenges and opportunities ahead for Canada in a changing circumpolar world.

There was much to indicate continuity of Canada’s Arctic policy from previous Liberal and Conservative governments in Dion’s speech; not necessarily a bad thing in a region that is stable and inclusive. The foundation of Canada’s Arctic foreign policy for at least the past two decades has been the promotion and inclusion of northern Indigenous voices. It ensured Indigenous voices were represented in the Arctic Council through its Permanent Participants and supported the inclusion of traditional knowledge in the council’s scientific work. Predictably, those voices were identified by Minister Dion as a focus area and priority once again. Similarly, the role and uniqueness of the Arctic Council in regional governance was highlighted as a source of past and future regional cooperation.

Perhaps less expected was Minister Dion’s support for resource development in the Arctic, a stance that had provoked criticism of the Conservatives when they were in power: “Our choice must be responsible and respectful development of the Arctic’s natural resources in ways that bring positive outcomes to northern communities and that mitigate negative impacts using the most reliable evidence available,” his speech read.

This is entirely in keeping with the stated desires of the North’s Indigenous and territorial leaders, a pragmatic lot, who are more likely to express concern about being forced to live in a protected area or natural preserve than of being coerced into accepting mega projects.

That said, we did detect significant shifts from the previous government’s policies. Sovereignty was indeed mentioned, but only in the context of the Arctic Council needing to draw out cooperation from those states “cling[ing]” to it. What a revelation, and a breath of fresh air, to not fan false concerns about our control over the Northwest Passage.

In its stead, Dion adopted the term “stewardship” to describe Canada’s responsibilities in its Arctic; a progressive term that better articulates the rightful role of the government in addressing our various interests in the region.

By far the most significant aspect of the speech was Dion’s defense of reestablishing cooperative relations with Russia in the Arctic, with whom Canada “control[s] 75 percent of the North.” This was not in any way an endorsement or ignorance of Russia’s questionable behaviors in Syria or Crimea, but a logical and rational conviction that severing ties with Russia in the Arctic “serves the interests of no one.”

Dion’s policy shift will be welcomed by a broad range of Arctic scholars, diplomats and residents. Its rationality has two clear objectives: promoting the interests of Northerners through Canada’s foreign policy, and contributing to regional stability and security in a rapidly changing Arctic: “Cooperation with Russia on the full range of Arctic issues is simply in our best interests,” he said.

But Dion missed opportunities. He could have provided concrete strategies to address the many sustainable development challenges that plague the Arctic. Regional collaboration on developing and commercializing innovative technologies that address remote, off-grid community needs – small-scale energy generation, wastewater treatment, telehealth, food-growing chambers and 3D printing still lack leadership. Focusing on those areas could contribute to northern development while enhancing and leveraging circumpolar cooperation. Nor were there any new plans to address climate change or improve environmental protections, such as those previously committed to in the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement.

Overall, however, this was a good speech, and an opportunity to commemorate the accomplishments of the Arctic Council and Canada’s role therein. But almost one year after taking office, we are still waiting for a Liberal Arctic policy.

The ConversationThe views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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